Ray McKinnon’s attraction to suitors can only have increased after this hard-fought and occasionally inspired victory, which means Raith stretched their unbeaten run to 12 games. If they can make it 13, then they will be through to the play-off semi-final.
“Only one Ray McKinnon” sang the home fans in recognition of speculation linking their manager with Dundee United.
While United do definitely want McKinnon, they may now have to wait longer than expected. If this was the first in a series of cup finals for Hibs, it ended without much in the form of glory.
It said everything about the quality of the game that the man of the match was Harry Panayiotou. While unquestionably providing the game’s decisive moment, the striker was only on the park for 25 minutes. He and fellow substitute Louis Longridge combined to ensure Raith drew first blood. The latter’s corner was headed in by Panayotou with 16 minutes left. The pair entered the fray together in an inspired double substitution nine minutes earlier. McKinnon, it seems, can do no wrong at present.
Not so Jason Cummings. Restored to the starting line-up after two games where he was named among the substitutes, the striker perhaps felt like he had some business to attend to at Stark’s Park. This was, of course, the venue where he contrived to miss from about a yard out in Hibs’ last visit back in March, which ended in a costly defeat. It was one of admittedly many moments at which Hibs fans could look back on and wonder, what if? If only things had been different, they wouldn’t even need to be present in Kirkcaldy last night.
But Cummings couldn’t even blame the bobbly pitch for his latest bad miss in front of goal, minutes before half-time. An astute dinked ball from John McGinn played him in and all Cummings needed to do was do the same again, which was lift the ball over the advancing Kevin Cuthbert.
While he managed this, he watched in horror as the ball also cleared the bar. “SPL you’re having a laugh,” mocked the home fans. On this evidence, both would struggle to describe themselves as top-flight material.
Cummings was replaced after 80 minutes on what was a disappointing night for the striker.
Poor finishing from Hibs cost them dearly here. Raith’s defence showed why they will be tough to beat at Easter Road, something Hibs now have to do or else say goodbye to their Premiership dream for a second successive season.
Conrad Logan was the first goalkeeper called into action when Aiden Connolly tested him from the angle. But the Irishman beat the effort away, earning the applause of the Hibs fans behind. He was also required to move smartly to head a ball out of play before scurrying back to his goal.
In order for Raith to take a first-leg lead to Edinburgh on Saturday, Raith were going to need to find a way past Logan, whose involvement from the start was the first real indication he is now first choice. They also had to out-muscle three strapping Hibs centre-halves, none of whom were able to deal with Longridge’s 74th-minute corner that led to the opening goal.
The ousted Mark Oxley looked on from the bench. Last night was the first of a potential seven, to quote manager Alan Stubbs, cup finals. It isn’t often you rest players for cup finals. Logan seemed to have been picked on merit, and why not? He was yet to concede a goal in three games, including one that went to extra-time. But he was beaten last night after a corner was poorly defended by Hibs.Logan was one of those possibly at fault.
It was Kevin Cuthbert, Logan’s opposite number, who impressed most. After Connolly’s early testing of Logan, Hibs responded by giving Cuthbert something to do. He was up to the task on both occasions, blocking Cummings’ effort at his near post and then dealing comfortably with Marvin Bartley’s powerful drive.
He was grabbing everything, including a good chance when Anthony Stokes got on the end of Fraser Fyvie’s cross after 27 minutes. Stokes then saw a shot from the edge of the box gathered by Cuthbert. Two free-kick efforts from the striker in the second half also came to nothing; the first fisted away by Cuthbert, and the second hit high over the bar.
It was poor quality fare for the most partbetween a team bang on form in the hosts, and one who were, in the view of their manager, returning to their best form of earlier in the season.
Stubbs might have to review this assessment after last night, which got a whole lost worse when Panayiotou rose to head home what proved the winner after Ryan Hardie’s persistence had earned a corner.
The striker even applauded himself for the achievement, but how significant it could prove. Longridge’s corner was a devil to defend but there was barely a challenge as Panayiotou flicked a header into the net, with Logan left to protest about lack of cover.
Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Thomson, Barr, Benedictus, McKeown, Connolly (Longridge 64), Davidson, Toshney, Craigen (Panayiotou 64), Hardie (Stewart 90), Callachan. Unused subs: Law, Anderson, Bates, Robertson.
Hibs: Logan, McGregor, Hanlon, Fontaine (Henderson 84), Gray, Bartley, Fyvie (McGeouch 80), McGinn, Stevenson, Stokes, Cummings (Keatings 80). Unused subs: Oxley, Gunnarsson, Boyle, Dagnall.
Referee: K Clancy
More to follow...